By JIM HUNT
author, speaker, consultant
I have been planning a series of columns on the various jobs in city government and providing a little explanation from my experiences over the past thirty or so years in local government.
Unless you have worked for a city, it is difficult to understand all the things that go into making a successful city and the uniqueness of the people who work in city hall. I am starting this series highlighting the job of City Attorney. This is quite bittersweet since my good friend and Clarksburg City Attorney, Greg Morgan, passed away last week and I could not think of a more deserving person to dedicate this column.
A City Attorney is unique in the practice of law and requires a demeanor and temperament that few people possess. Experience is a necessity and it often comes about through working in progressively larger cities and through trial and error. A city attorney must be an expert in a wide variety of legal issues and be proficient in employment law, contract law, real estate law, bond law, insurance law, to name a few. They are required to offer a legal opinion regularly and often without adequate time to fully research an issue. They do not know from one day to the next what they will be asked to provide legal guidance on and many times the politics of the situation will put them at odds with their employers.
During my tenure in local government, the City Attorney would render opinions that involved millions of dollars or the future of projects that shaped the city. In most decisions, both large and small, the City Attorney is relied on to provide the legal perspective. Often, they are asked to “make it happen” and the City Attorney needs to have the character and decisiveness to do what is right, not what pleases the politicians.
One story that comes to mind is the case of a city employee who had his car parked on city property and a tree fell on it. He filed a claim with the city’s insurance carrier and they denied the claim due to it being an “act of God”, which is standard in most policies. The employee turned the claim into his own insurance company and they covered the loss except for a $1,000 deductible. The city council was sympathetic to the employee and wanted to pay the deductible. As we were getting ready to make the motion to do this, the City Attorney advised that doing so would jeopardize our agreement under our insurance policy and create a precedent for future claims. The city council was not pleased and wanted to make an exception in this case for the benefit of the employee. The City Attorney remained steadfast and was probably the most unpopular person in the room that night.
Likewise, there were countless times when the City Attorney spent hours researching the law to assist families that were having issues with the city. He provided an unbiased opinion on the likelihood of neighbors prevailing on the inevitable squabbles that arise in modern living. On occasion, we would ask the City Attorney to meet with a citizen after the meeting and through his skills at mediation, he would fashion a solution to a problem that sometimes had festered for years.
Greg Morgan was the epitome of a City Attorney. He followed the legacy of his father Roger, who served as Clarksburg’s City Attorney decades ago and left his own legacy that will not soon be forgotten. I could go on for days telling stories of Greg Morgan’s contributions to the city but his quiet nature dictates that I do not. Suffice to say, Greg gave the city his dedication and energy but he did it in a way that honors the noble profession of the law.